It was a November evening in 2002 and I couldn’t avoid making my first trip to our local VFW post. My son was beginning his first year as a Tiger Cub — which is a sort of junior Boy Scout — and all the boys were meeting there for a flag retirement ceremony. I was not sure what to expect, although I remembered from my own Boy Scout days that a flag retirement involved a sort of burnt offering of old and discarded flags. Parental participation was required, even though in this queer age the Scouts required that we refer to ourselves as our children’s "adult partners". Apparently, the terms "Mom" and "Dad" are out of fashion.
It was my first time at the VFW, but it was easy to find. It is the only place in town with a Vietnam-era helicopter sitting in the front. Supposedly this is to remind passersby of past sacrifices to defend freedom. To me, it symbolized several million dollars of conscripted capital wasted in the military’s effort to spend its budget some fiscal year, a long time ago. Several veterans were already at the VFW before the ceremony began, and it was obvious that they took this event very seriously. They stood around the perimeter of the yard where the ceremony would take place, and smoked, their longish hair blowing in crisp winds. Parents and children were invited to sit on folding chairs set out for the occasion.
We did, and then the ceremony began with a gruesome slideshow of the events of September 11th. I immediately wanted to leave, thinking that such pictures were inappropriate for a six-year old. My son had a scant idea of what happened on that day, and I did not appreciate this effort to circumvent my authority. But this was part of the ceremony, and my son’s friends were all there, so what could I do? I now know that the images of September 11 have been impaled on the brains of every public school student from kindergarten and up — a government-funded attack on innocence.
Then we began the first of many prayers. I wondered how many of the vets there realized that the government they were defending opposed public prayer such as the ones they were reciting. The entire ceremony reeked of confusion between God and Country. Both were considered objects worthy of our worship. I learned that, in the new millennium, war prayers no longer ask for God’s blessings on our armed forces. We now add emergency medical technicians, police, and firefighters, as if to underscore these individuals’ modern role as an adjunct military force required for future episodes of domestic terrorism.
The vets also prayed for success in our next war in Iraq, which was then considered by many to be a done deal. I recall these prayers raising other questions in my head. Was it realistic to still hope that the war could be averted? Why do veterans think that God will bless them with success in killing innocents? Have any of these men ever pondered that the symbiotic relationship between the welfare and warfare states fuels this war far more than any foreign leader’s trumped up belligerence? And for that matter, was I the only one there who noticed the less-than-subtle switch from the World Trade Center attacks to the war in Iraq, as though these events were somehow related?
Next came the guest speaker, a retired NYPD policeman, to offer his thoughts on terrorism and the upcoming war. He spoke about a friend of his who died in Tower 1 on the Fateful Day and how ironic it was that he was to die in the WTC because they first met in Oklahoma City cleaning up the rubble as a part of the FEMA cleanup project. The economist in me objects to this self-congratulatory emphasis on supposedly selfless public service. These people are paid well for what they do, and indeed in some cases, they earn well into the six figures. Besides, unlike the Vietnam veterans standing there, New York’s municipal police, firefighters, and EMTs were not conscripted into service. While I am occasionally grateful for their sacrifices, they became public employees voluntarily, in the process claiming the wealth of others they decided to serve whether we wanted them to or not. This sacrifice cannot compare to the poor draftee who lost his life in a Vietnamese jungle.
Finally, the holocaust of flags began, and with more prayer. My son squirmed when he realized that these men were going to burn that pile of flags up on the makeshift funeral pyre, and I took heart that he must be subconsciously grasping a surreal quality in the night’s events. He wanted to leave but was too embarrassed to try in front of his little friends. As the old flags burned, "Amazing Grace" was played, first on a flute, then on bagpipes, as if to emphasize this secularized version of a sacrificial death of a cloth deity.
The closing hymn, Lee Greenwood’s "Proud to be an American" was sung by all, the words known by heart (to my surprise). I looked up. One of the older and grizzled Vietnam-era vets removed his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes. Another man grabbed the microphone to remind the crowd (and to quell any doubts) that America is still a free country. I grabbed my car keys and remembered that the federal government only took 20 percent of our incomes the year the Vietnam War ended, and that taxes in the early 1970s didn’t fund any programs similar to today’s Citizen Corp, a program that trains neighbors to spy on each other. Is this what the veterans fought for?
The event was attended primarily by enlisted men — draftees who did the brunt of the dirty work in Vietnam, and who felt the most pain, loss and tragedy. I don’t blame them for participating in such ceremonies, but I noticed that none of my several friends who are retired military officers took the time to attend. For these men, the war was the basis for a career and a cushy retirement marked by golf club memberships and travel.
I was asked a couple of times (by students) during that Veterans Day how I thought veterans should be honored. I think they should, although I think that those who were forced into service, via conscription, deserve more honor than those who served in the volunteer army. In either case, I do not think that we honor them by supporting the government every time it sends men in harm’s way in the name of unconstitutional empire.
Instead, we honor them by increasing trade ties with countries, knowing that economically isolated countries are easier to bomb. We honor them by defending our own freedoms in post-9/11 America. We honor them by remembering that while war is the health of the State, it is also death to the Republic, thus making even successful military operations self-defeating in the long run.
In short, we honor those who fought fascism abroad by opposing fascism at home. It seemed to me that that is the more fitting way, when compared to propagandizing veterans to justify enhancing the power of the nation-state, maintaining political support for otherwise unpopular leaders, increasing already-bloated military budgets, and the diminution of freedom.
On Veterans Day 2002, I was sad to learn that such ideas would be considered heresy at most of the VFW posts around the country. Not much has changed over the last five years. This is truly a pity, if only because it insures that the future membership rolls of VFW posts are secure.
November 13, 2007
Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.